My children’s school spent a week focusing on Ghana. Class groups were assigned to regions in Ghana and at the end of the week, each group made a presentation. My daughter’s group focused on the Western Region. She was given a piece to say on stage and it was about Nzuelzo (say “IN-SOO-LIN-ZOO”, the village on stilts. When she said those words, she perfectly mimicked the Ghanaian accent and since then, none of us can refer to Nzuelzo without using the same intonation and adding “the village on stilts.”
And so began her determination to visit Nzuelzo. We finally achieved this on a trip in December 2011. The village is about 6 hours drive outside of Accra. The story is told that about 500 years ago, the people of the village lived in what is now Mali and were part of the ancient Empire of Ghana. They needed to escape from an enemy and so they consulted their oracle who instructed them to follow a giant snail to a safe place to live. About forty-three households made the journey from Mali through Burkina Faso into Ghana. Their enemies pursued them and they believe that the snail conquered their enemies and took them to a place they would be safe forever, the Amusuri wet lands. There they built Nzulezu which means the ‘village on the surface’ of water.
We overnighted in Cape Coast in the Central Region. This was as far as we had ever travelled to date, so the next step was the start of the real adventure. The next day we continued to Takoradi, oil country, and finally we arrived at Axim in the Western Region. We spent a night there, basking life near the sea. The sea was very rough, but we enjoyed the vistas, some of which reminded me of Black Rocks at home in St. Kitts.
We visited Nzuelzo on our last day, just before heading back to Accra. We had to travel about an hour further west of Axim, almost to the border between Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. When we arrived at the village, we were quite impressed by the reception we received. Unlike Ganvie, the village on stilts that I visited in Benin a few months earlier, there were formal procedures to be followed. Here we found a Welcome Center, a formal process for payment, and forms to be completed. We were even offered life jackets. I was excited about seeing this village.
We walked down a pier and boarded the boat. We were a large group and so the boats were full. My boat had four adults, two children and the oarsman. The boats were heavily laden so we were put to work. One of us had to help with the rowing while another was set to bail out the water that consistently threatened to fill the boat. We traveled like this down a long narrow man-made waterway. The oarsman, our guide, told us that in the past, visitors had to walk for an hour along a trail to get to the Lake … on which the village was situated. Tourists complained and so the waterway had been built. The canoe ride still took a long time, but perhaps it was better than walking.
After what seemed like eons, we arrived at lake Amansuri. We were on one side and the village was about 1 km away on the other. We moved slowly across the lake, as the oarsmen were already tired from their long journey across the waterway and I felt as if I was in the middle of one of those frustrating nightmares where you are trying to reach something that remains stubbornly out of reach. The sun was hot, we moved slowly and, unlike Ganvie, there was no other activity on the lake to distract us.
Eventually we arrived at the dock. We were greeted by the Welcome sign of the guest house in the village. The differences between Ganvie and Nzuelzo were stark. If Ganvie was a sea creature, Nzuelzo was an amphibian. Where as in Ganvie, the only way to get between buildings was by water, the houses in Ganvie were clustered together and there was a walkway through the village. Ganvie’s inhabitants made their living primarily on the water, while the Nzuelzo men were primarily farmers and left the village each day to farm on the main land. As a result, the village was very quiet when we arrived and there were mainly children, a few women and the village chief. The village contains two churches, a school, an Inn, a bar and two shops. All of the buildings are made from rafia.
I did not go far into the village. The doors of the houses opened right on to the walkway and I felt as though I was walking through a hospital ward, looking for a particular patient while trying my best not to spy on the other patients. We got to a point in the walkway where the water underneath was full of garbage and I decided that I had seen enough. I wanted to preserve my memory of a village on stilts as a colourful place occupied by proud, hard-working people. The children and my friends went on a tour of the village which included a meeting with the chief. He followed my friends back to the dock to ensure that he received donations from all of us. I did not feel entirely comfortable giving him cash but I would encourage anyone going to visit the village to carry supplies to donate to the school.